Having entered into a long-term relationship with my MK 50H II head, I’ve increasingly found myself disinterested in other amps. Amps I previously enjoyed have started to seem very 2D by comparison. Even the EVH heads, which I’ve used with great success for the last five years, started to feel like “two or three great sounds” compared to the Cornford’s whole pallette. With the Cornford, your right hand is your gain control, your fingers your tone controls, and the volume pot on your guitar alone will replace two or three of the channels on most modern amps. Ever since my introduction to hi-fi audio as a kid, I’ve known that less was more, and as a guitarist I’d experienced it myself on some of the better Marshalls I’ve played, but the combination of Cornford’s build quality, gorgeous looks, and huge flexibility from simple controls just took it to another level for me. Read my MK 50H II review here if you want to know more.
So, ever since getting the flagship head, I’ve been looking for excuses to sell my EVH amps – which I’ll say again are wonderful sounding amps with huge performance for their price – and invest in another Cornford. I wanted an amp that would offer something different (but not too different) from my MK head; something I could still use live, and something with at least a built-in boost and an effects loop. I was drawn to the tiny 6W Harlequin and Carrera, but I figured I’d probably only use them for practising. The Hurricane looked perfect at 20w with a built-in effects loop, but didn’t have any switching at all. I like using my guitar volume control in conjunction with a simple boost to achieve a range of sounds, and I didn’t want to add a clean boost in front of the amp.
Enter the Roadhouse series. I’ve had a lot of experience with the 50w combo, which works very well as a sort of “cut down” MK50. In short it offers the gain/overdrive channel of the flagship head, slightly tweaked, with an effects loop thrown in. Resonance, presence, the second master and the second effects loop are deleted for a really simple amp that does everything I need and nothing I don’t. But the 50w combo is very heavy (it’s almost a two-man-carry) and of course it doesn’t hit its sweet spot until it’s relatively loud, much like the MK50 heads.
The 30 watt combo version seemed perfect. I needed an amp for smaller gigs but still with a large aural footprint (the single Celestion Vintage 30 in the large enclosure achieves that), I needed an amp for students to use, and I like having a second amp around the home studio just for fun/inspiration and as a backup. The Roadhouse series is PCB-based, but still entirely hand-made in England, has build quality that is every bit as impressive as the flagship hand-wired heads, and the combos even have the pine cabinets and the same Celestion Vintage 30s. I’m no stranger to very high-quality PCB-based amps (Bogner, Soldano, CAA) and to be honest I really don’t mind what type of conductor my signal travels down as long as the circuit is pure and well-designed! The main concern with PCBs historically is that they’re not as easy to work on, and they can flex over time if not properly designed. The Roadhouse board is short, squat, very thick, and supported every couple of inches along its length, so I’m not worried about long-term reliability. The PCB is very cleverly designed, with all the major components placed so that the traces are kept extremely short and the layout very simple. It’s difficult to imagine a shorter path or a better solution for this circuit, and the soldering and workmanship inside is absolutely beyond reproach.
The Roadhouse has a couple of circuit differences although it’s fairly clear from the control panel or a quick glance at the circuit that it’s pretty heavily based on the Gain/Overdrive channel of the MK heads. The first Gain pot is a 250k rather than a 1M, which makes its contribution to a lower gain preamp (more on this later) and the bass control is re-voiced to act upon a higher frequency. This reigns in all the extra “low” lows that you would need a closed-back cabinet to reproduce, and means that the Bass control adds punch right where the combo body needs it. Anything over halfway and you feel it in your chest!
At first I was a bit bewildered by the relatively dark and furry sound of this amp at low volumes. I quickly realised that, like nearly all the Cornford products, this is not a practise amp! Don’t be fooled by the “low” wattage rating – this is a professional tool, and the Roadhouse really starts to come together with the master at around halfway. The darker, softer preamp blends beautifully with the beginnings of power tube breakup from those two cathode-biased 6L6s (or EL34s on the early models) and the amp comes alive. With the volume at around six (roughly the same volume as an average drummer) I’m actually glad there isn’t more sizzle in the preamp. The amp is now tear-your-head off bright if you want it to be, but the clever preamp design keeps that thick, Marmitey Cornford goodness behind every note, preventing single note lines from becoming shrill. With the Gain knob near maximum, I have enough sustain and grease for high-octane blues soloing, with sustained notes melting into controlled, musical feedback on demand. If I roll off the guitar volume from here, I can get the sound almost clean, but the feel is still buttery, with just enough fur around the notes to stop things thinning out. If I dig in, the amp barks and bites; and when I lay off it smoulders.
The Boost control is a bit of an oddity. If you’re used to getting metallic high gain from your preamp, this control will fail you. It works more like a “push” or “sustain” dial than anything. Much like the MK heads, the second gain dial simply drives the second stage of the preamp harder for what I would describe as a clean boost or “more of the same”. As a result, the highest gain settings this amp is capable of are probably too soft and indistinct for metal players, or even fans of late ’80s hot-rodded Marshall tones. This is just not that kind of amp. With the Gain control near max and the Boost control around halfway (my favourite settings) I was able to achieve a thick, milkshake-rich palm mute sound, reminiscent of Van Halen’s Loss of Control or Somebody Get Me a Doctor. There’s just enough gain for hard rock shredding, but if you add more grease, the bottom end starts to fall apart. I’d be adding an MXR 6-band in front of the amp for that extra push over the edge or tighten-up where needed.
For blues or country players, settings of around five or six on the Gain dial will yield a sparkly just-breaking up clean sound perfectly suited to a sparkly Strat or an aggressive Tele, and adding the foot-switchable Boost (also at say five or six) will take those players into aggressive, stinging lead territory – or grab a Les Paul for Gary Moore or Paul Kossoff textures.
It’s been said by almost every other reviewer, but the Cornford tone stack is simply the best I’ve come across. Winding the Middle control up and down to its extremes creates a comb-filter effect, its scope is so broad – yet settings around halfway will give everything most players need. Most of the best sounds fall between four and seven on this dial, meaning that it’s difficult to get a bad sound, but far from impossible; exactly as it should be on a professional piece of kit. The midrange seems to sit right where it punches through a mix: just the slightest boost on this control will bring your solos right above the band with a powerful vowel quality that stops just short of “honk”. The Treble control adds bite and sting – again, everything you need is available below seven on the dial, meaning that if you want to sound downright nasty, you can!
Likewise, the Bass control really does add punch at the frequencies that count. As I mentioned earlier, the control has been re-voiced relative to the MK heads, meaning that the low end smear and earth-shattering rumble that a MK head is capable of through a closed back 2×12″ or 4×12″ cabinet are more or less dialled out on this amp. Instead, the Bass control acts on a set of frequencies that the oversized open-back combo body and single Celestion Vintage 30 are capable of reproducing – so settings above halfway punch you right in the gut, and settings of seven or higher will fill a medium-sized room with ease.
In short, there isn’t a single other combo I would consider for live work. For true cleans, a Fender-type design will win every time (this amp has clean settings, but no clean channel) and for modern high gain there are myriad options available – even in the combo world. But for everything in between, this amp delivers power, musicality and sensitivity in spades, and all with that unmistakeable rich and eloquent Cornford voice.